Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 162: I’m the Teacher: Bravery in the Face of Higher Ed’s Ignorance

• Patrick Allitt: I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student; University of Pennsylvania Press; 2004/5; 244 pp.; $59.95 (hardcover)/$19.95 (paper)

What is it really like to teach American college students these days? Very few professors bother to write much about that. Sure, they have a lot to say, but writing critically about the problems of dealing with students would neither be appreciated by administrators (“I thought you were part of our team, but from that letter of yours in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I can see that you’re not!”) nor would it be a profitable use of time, given the pressure to produce “research” that puffs out the old CV. It’s a rare occurrence to come upon a book addressing that topic.

Patrick Allitt is a native of Britain who teaches American history at Emory University in Atlanta. His book, which bears the subtitle A Semester in the University Classroom, is not only a pleasure to read, but also says some very important things about the state of American education.

First, Allitt observes that American college students — even at a decidedly upper-crust institution such as Emory — are not readers. They’ve gone through 12 years of schooling and have an aversion to reading. Getting his students to read and understand is a constant problem. “Most students today do not read much and many have gone through school hardly ever reading voluntarily. There has been a lot of discussion during the culture wars of the last decade or two about what books we should assign to students and what (if anything) we should regard as part of the canon. What makes the debate so intense is perhaps the participants’ awareness that the assigned books in school and college are often almost the only books many of the students are ever going to read,” Allitt says.

Allitt’s students complain about the amount of reading he assigns, about its supposed difficulty, and about its failure to interest them. Often, when he asks them questions about the assignments, they either have not troubled themselves to do the reading, or if they have, they’ve gleaned precious little information from it. He confronts this problem diligently by calling on students in class and giving quizzes. Some students respond, but it’s evident that many are set in their ways. They just don’t like to read anything that isn’t fun and entertaining.

Matters might improve considerably if the rest of the faculty were also fighting against the student aversion to reading, but few of them probably are. Allitt doesn’t say much about his colleagues, but I suspect he knows that many of them have given in to what Murray Sperber calls the faculty-student nonaggression pact. His willingness to stay and fight when much of the rest of the faculty has retreated is commendable.

The second big point Allitt makes is that American college students are poor writers. Not just his students, but students at institutions from the top to the bottom of our higher-education totem pole — bad writers all. “They have not done enough writing to become good at it,” he says. “They’ve been cursed with a lifetime of multiple-choice examinations instead, so even the highly intelligent ones come to writing as a strange and alien activity that is occasionally forced upon them.”

Our author is absolutely correct. The grading of writing assignments is hard and usually thankless work. (Allitt notes that students bristle at having errors pointed out to them.) Few teachers or professors go to the trouble of assigning papers and bringing out the red pen to correct mistakes any more, so it’s natural that students can’t write.

Given the two prominent themes of students who disdain reading and haven’t learned to write, the people who ought to read the book are those who run our K-12 schools and the parents of college students who assume that because their children have gotten into college, they must be well-educated.

My favorite episode related in the book is a class in which Allitt is discussing the causes of the Great Depression. A senior economics major keeps chiming in with statements that run contrary to the conventional, “mainstream” historical view pinning the blame on the instability of capitalism. “He’s well-read and knows how to pick holes in my oversimplified explanations,” Allitt says. Sounds like what educators like to call “a teachable moment,” but with the roles reversed.

This is a wonderful book. I heartily recommend it, and tip my hat to the author for writing it instead of some dreary monograph.

George C. Leef is executive director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.